When you look at the Valley’s dining scene today with its abundance of restaurants, it’s hard to imagine that there was once a time when you couldn’t just get good Thai food, or Korean barbecue, or a host of other global cuisines that now dot our culinary landscape. That was the feel here when Saipin Chutima took over Lotus of Siam, located in a modest strip mall on Sahara and Commercial Center, in 1999. Sure, there were places then where you could get Americanized versions of Asian cuisine (our palates had been weaned on sweet, saucy pad Thai for a while), but what Chutima brought to the table was something new and unfamiliar: authentic northern Thai specialties that you’d otherwise have to travel to Chiang Mai to try.
And diners noticed, along with national food writers and people who give out culinary awards. Long lines followed, for those who neglected to make a Lotus reservation.
In 2017, a rain-related roof collapse closed the Sahara location, but it also paved the way for a new Lotus on Flamingo Road a few months later. (That spot is currently undergoing repairs and is expected to reopen later this month.)
Meanwhile, repair on the Sahara location continued—the space holds sentimental and historic meaning for Chutima—and was completed just as restaurants shut down due to COVID-19. The original Lotus of Siam finally reopened in May, and even with a 50 percent reduction in capacity, dining there for longtime patrons has been a bright spot in these tough times. The framed photographs on the walls and the chandeliers are familiar touches that have been part of the Lotus story for more than 20 years.
Not that there haven’t been changes, or that it has been easy for the Chutima family to navigate this new world of running a restaurant during a pandemic.
“It’s definitely taken a toll on us a little bit, but it’s not as bad [as it was],” says restaurant manager Penny Chutima. “I mean, we’re just hanging in, breaking even basically. But, you know, we did a lot of measures, [and] we changed a lot of things, [like] we put in a thermal camera. We also put in the disinfectant floor mats for the restaurant [employees]. So for example, if you’re walking in from the kitchen, or you’re coming in from the outside, you have to step on this pad before you do a facial scan. And then after that—[there’s] disinfectant on the floor mats—you have to stand on it for at least 20 seconds. It’s enough time for the camera to grab your temperature and then scan you in, clock you in, and then on to work you go.”
The menu, too, changed to reflect disruptions in the supply chain, foreign and domestic, especially in the early months of the pandemic. Not wanting to sacrifice the quality of dishes by substituting inferior ingredients, Lotus pared down the number of items on its menu, from around 250 to just under 100, though Penny Chutima notes the kitchen will try to make anything a diner requests.
Importantly, the signature dishes that have made their way down the Chutima family for 100 years are alive and well, including Crispy Duck Khao Soi, a plate of egg noodles in a curry base with a dash of coconut cream, red onions, lime and pickled mustard greens. But don’t get ahead of yourself. Make sure your table starts with Nam Prik Noom—a dip of roasted green chili, garlic, onions and tomatoes served with fresh vegetables and fried pork skins—along with an order of Garlic Prawns, deep-fried with shells and sautéed with house-special garlic sauce.
Sure, there’s pad Thai and a variety of curries, too, but what has always made Lotus of Siam so unique is the sense of adventure you feel when you find something you’ve never tried before, like Kha Nom Jean Nam Ngyow, a pork stew with tomatoes, ground pork, pork blood chunks and spare ribs atop a bed of rice vermicelli. It’s comfort food in a bowl, rich and complex and unfamiliar at first, but by the end, it tastes like something you’ve eaten all your life. Like Lotus of Siam itself, it feels like home.
LOTUS OF SIAM 953 E. Sahara Ave. #A5, 702-735-3033. Lunch: Monday-Friday, 11 a.m.-2:30 pm. Dinner: Daily, 5-10 p.m.